Unhacking Disability Employment: World Answers

November 19, 2018 | María Pereira, 2018 AAPD Summer Intern

It’s a sweltering day. I’m a stranger walking into a world unknown, devastated by the 2016 earthquake in Ecuador. Quite apprehensive, a woman invites me inside her makeshift tent. I meet her 18 year-old daughter with multiple sclerosis who is lying on a mattress on the dirt floor. Her abilities were going to waste as she looked up to the ceiling for hours on end. In refugee camps, finding people with disabilities hidden away with nothing to do is not out of the ordinary. Perhaps you would not expect people with disabilities to be excluded from work in this way in places not impacted by disaster, war, or other crises.

Yet the situation is not much better elsewhere. In fact, even if we look at developed countries, such as the United States, we find alarming statistics; in the U.S. the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is 31.20% compared to 76.40% for people without disabilities. This is strikingly similar to Ecuador’s statistics, where although 63.15% of registered people with disabilities are working-age, only 23.52% are employed. Based on data from 51 countries, the employment rate for men with disabilities is 52.8% while that of non-disabled men is 64.9% and similarly, the employment rate for women with disabilities is 19.6% compared to 29.9% for their non-disabled counterparts. So yes, while the issue is clearly aggravated in poor and crisis-stricken nations, unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities and resulting poverty are world issues. As such, we should look for world answers.

I have come up with three mottos to promote the employment of people with disabilities. It is up to us, workers, employers, and communities to embrace these mottos with initiatives (such as those linked):

  • People with disabilities can and want to work.
    People with disabilities are excellent workers and further innovation. All entities would benefit from employing disabled workers and creating disability-positive environments (such as the Walgreens model, teachers with disabilities in Lesotho, or Deaf Can! Coffee). Further, with the advent of social media and the internet, mass communications campaigns and pledges might be the future for culture change in the workplace (a la the Disability Confident Campaign).
  • People with disabilities need to stop being scared to work.
    People with disabilities often do not look for employment or turn down opportunities because they would risk losing disability benefits. Evidence from countries like Hungary and Poland suggests that tighter obligations to support occupational health services and reintegration can help disability beneficiaries enter or re-enter the workforce. We need to get rid of income caps on benefits qualifications and move towards benefits promoting reintegration.
  • People with disabilities can be the boss.
    Why couldn’t people with disabilities hire themselves? Incubators and accelerators have become key in promoting economic empowerment of other minorities…we should do the same! (See the Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Programme and Disability Start-Up Network as examples).

By no means do I intend to a solve a problem that affects every corner of the world here, in 500 words. Perhaps the intention is more to leave it in writing that it should be a priority to address the unemployment of people with disabilities. Continued cross-country and cross-disability initiatives, as well as ample data and research collection, should be continued until we find answers to this world problem.

None of us should be lying on mattresses, looking at ceilings, with nothing to do.


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María Pereira is a 2018 AAPD Summer Intern. She interned with the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor.

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